Why the German Intelligence Community Infuriates Me

One and a half years ago, I wrote the following about the German (BND) and the U.S. (CIA, NSA…) intelligence services in comparison:

(…) I think there is a marked difference in self-perception between the two nations. I don’t think anyone in Germany even wishes to have an equally powerful and expensive intelligence apparatus. Maybe I’m extremely naive, but I doubt wiretapping foreign heads of state is high on the BND’s agenda. (…)

Of course this was written in the context of the revelations about NSA and CIA operations that infringe on civil rights around the world. I still believe that (i) German agencies probably are less intrusive than their “Five Eyes” counterparts, and (ii) that public opinion in Germany is more critical of surveillance than in the United States.

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Sign at the BND construction site (2008), CC-BY-SA by Schmidt/Richter on Wikimedia Commons

Recent news, however, have led me to re-evaluate my standpoint. While I still wish for “my” intelligence agencies to respect civil rights and the rule of law, most importantly I would really appreciate more professionalism on their side. I mean, you really can’t make this stuff up:

  • The construction site for the new BND headquarters in the center of Berlin was vandalized: after thieves removed a couple of faucets (!!!) from the upper floor, water kept leaking for hours
  • …leading to millions of euros in property damage (FYI: the new HQ is expected to cost >1.3 billion)
  • Nobody noticed anything. And this is not the first incident: In 2011, the top-secret construction plans were stolen or “went missing”…

Ironically, there is a German figure of speech that refers to particularly tight security as “wasserdicht” (waterproof). Of course people on Twitter are having a lot of fun with this and other bad puns. Check out the #watergate and #BNDleaks hashtags. Another particularly fitting yet hard to translate one is #läuftbeimBND.

On a more serious note, I am deeply worried about what goes on in the German intelligence community.

  • Domestically, the investigation of the NSU terrorism against immigrants suggests that the “Verfassungsschutz” (homeland security) was paying informants who not only failed to prevent or investigate any of these terrible crimes, but were present at the scenes of murders and then lied about it at court.
  • Internationally, it seems clear now that there is no concerted effort to curtain U.S. activities on European soil, despite all the symbolic outrage. The “no-spy treaty” was hot air, which is not surprising. New revelations about the British GCHQ or the U.S. services violating the rights of European citizens have not led to any serious response as far as I can tell.
  • (My working hypothesis is that several past German governments owe a lot to U.S. support in Afghanistan, which makes it very difficult to criticize these agencies.)
  • The parliamentary investigative committee on NSA/CIA surveillance is under multiple lines of attack:
    • witnesses and experts are extremely tight-lipped, and the BND routinely “forgets” and “loses” documents
    • three members of the committee have stepped down for unclear reasons
    • everything is obscured by lawyers and engineers claiming ignorance of each others’ field, which leads to almost farcical Q&A sessions
    • the security of the committee’s internal lines of communications is questionable: someone intercepted the package carrying the encrypted phone used by the committee chairman on its way to be serviced.
    • (Netzpolitik.org offers very extensive coverage of these events [in German], often supported by leaked documents.)

I am no conspiracy theorist, I am not against intelligence services per se, and I also know that politics are complicated. But this combination of blatant negligence when it comes to civil rights (in the country that spawned both the Third Reich and the Stasi!) with strategic and operational incompetence is infuriating.

2 thoughts on “Why the German Intelligence Community Infuriates Me

  1. Very interesting read!
    especially the hypothesis of Germany owning a lot to the US deriving from (i suppose) assistance in intelligence.

    looking forward to your next post!

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